Mary H.K. Choi has a very smart article on staging fights in the movies on Wired.com (February 28, 2011). She complains about the incomprehensible mess in the Transformers movies' fight scenes, something that frustrated me, too, when I saw the first of the lot at my local multiscreen cineplex. "How," she asks, "am I supposed to gauge speed and size with supertight, fast-moving camera shots, thousands of similar-looking metallic surfaces, and little environmental involvement?"
For years, the use of tight rapid edits ("MTV-style montage"--the latest versions of which look like they're on amphetamines) has become the cinema trope du jour for conveying hectic action and topsy-turvy chaos. We get the Psycho-effect of seeing fists propel and bodies recoil, in quick juxtaposition, and our mind imagines the impact that's never actually shown. That's when a skillful director (and editor) can make the trick work as it should. Otherwise we get confusion. (We see the same problem in the opening car chase of the most recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, though that scene conveyed at least some sense of distance and perspective, which I found totally lacking in the climactic fights in Transformers.)
An onscreen knock-down, drag-out needs a few basic ingredients. We have to know what constitutes physical pain and death. We should know who the underdog is and how swiftly that character will get obliterated in the absence of a miracle. Ideally the skilled, invincible, or gob-smackingly numerous enemies will flex and preen a little ("I will break you"). And then the fight should simply defy all of these expectations. Good music helps.
I agree--and the same goes for wrestling videos. Except for the music. Natural sounds of thumps, slaps, groans, and heavy panting are the only music I need in wrestling--though sometimes the clamor of an enthusiastic crowd is good, too. We do need a sense of where we are (what furniture and props are at risk), the combatants' relative sizes, other points of contrast (distinguishing marks--tattoos, haircuts, and levels of arrogance)--and, yes, oh yes, some flexing and preening.
Choi rightly praises Viggo Mortensen's nude knife fight in Eastern Promises, the stop-motion battle of the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, and even the time-and-space-altered fisticuffs in the first of the Matrix series. I would go further to say that the fights in last year's The Fighter are better than those in Rocky or Raging Bull for realism and intensity. The fights in The Wrestler were the one disappointment in a movie I loved--fragmented chronology and shifting perspectives do not a good fight scene make--but I suspect the filmmakers' goal was not to produce a crotch-tingling fight, much as I would want one. And, dare I say it, the fight scenes in the book Fight Club are twice as hot as the ones in the movie, partly because a book has no equivalent to MTV editing style.